Incubator Accreditation: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Under increased scrutiny of their impact, Incubators need an accreditation framework to guide their journey of excellence and to give confidence to their stakeholders
We rely on organizations such as the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and the Quality Council of India to ensure that an acceptable level of quality is being maintained and delivered in various walks of life. As an illustration, more than five decades ago, the practice of educational accreditation arose in the US to ensure minimum levels of quality in their colleges and universities. In India, NAAC was established in 1994 to do the same. These standards strive to assess the quality of academic programmes and help create a culture of continuous improvement.
With its roots in French, the word accreditation means "vouch for' or "confer credit or authority on'. It brings values of trust, quality and transparency with its usage. Accreditation pushes organizations to meet and maintain high standards, in turn, increasing the public's confidence in their offerings.
World over, young and not-so-young entrepreneurs are developing solutions to the world's pressing problems in education, health, agriculture, ecology, transportation and other areas. Concurrently, over the last decade, startup incubation as a concept, and incubators and accelerators as supporting institutions, have gained traction. In India, a growing number (over 300) of academic and private incubators and accelerators (many supported by NITI Aayog's Atal Innovation Mission and the Department of Science and Technology) are serving as catalysts in the startup movement.
It may be a good time to apply the concept of accreditation to the emerging field of startup incubation. COVID-19 has brought the need for inclusive and high-quality ventures to the foreground. Bringing thousands of new entrepreneurs into the economic mainstream is a national priority, and successful job creation through incubation is the solution. This brings incubators' operational quality and their startup outcome rates into sharp focus. Unfortunately, incubator successes are rather sporadic and unpredictable with many struggling to attract high-quality founders and team members. Additionally, grant-making organizations are concerned about the low returns of their investments as measured by the job creation and success rates of graduating startups. As public funds become scarce, incubators are being asked to re-evaluate their business models to help them become high-quality organizations that can self-sustain. Transforming incubators into powerful institutions of change is a national priority.
The need of the hour is a credible and reliable accreditation system for incubators to use as a guiding light towards excellence, and to provide its stakeholders increased confidence in its capabilities and results. For this to happen we need to evolve standards that help produce robust startups: more consistently and with more efficient usage of incubator's resources.
Some benefits of Incubator Accreditation are:
- A common ecosystem-level vocabulary of incubator outcomes and startup success, and a shared understanding of key incubation processes/performance standards.
- Provides startups with an objective means to evaluate and select incubator that works best for them. Accreditation leads to greater quality and accountability – as a founder reading this you can feel safe knowing you are selecting an institution whose program has passed stringent quality measures and has been vetted by others in the field.
- One of the most effective mechanisms to build great incubators is investing in processes from the start. Accreditation enables putting in robust systems that help the incubator to grow in a controlled manner, as they scale their quantity and quality of offerings.
- Helps create an ecosystem-level push for building skills in key incubation areas like startup recruitment, startup success program, mentoring, investor engagement, team management, etc.
- Provides a basis for determining eligibility for fresh or continued usage of public funds and private grants, as well as the degree of interventions needed to "revive' the institution.
- Gives various incubator partners, like investors, mentors, and corporations, the confidence that they are working with an institution that provides evidence of its world-class quality and commitment.
Accreditation brings a mindset of reflection, self-assessment, and continuous improvement within an incubator. Besides creating external confidence, accreditation instills a sense of pride in the incubator's team. It ensures that its leadership, cohort managers, staff, and advisory boards are involved in institutional evaluation and planning. Incubation accreditation is a powerful idea whose time has come. To convert it into reality, we need to study similar initiatives in other industries, followed by a national discourse on the new approach. We need to ensure that the new accreditation standards lay a premium on incubator self-assessment and continuous improvement as a means to build viable and enduring institutions.